On Tuesday 19th May, Dr Juerg Matter and Dr Rex Taylor from the National Oceanography Centre will be at the Dancing Man Brewery talking about volcanic rocks, how they are formed, and how they might be used to combat climate change.
Dr Rex Taylor works in geochemistry, with his main research area being in time sequences of changes in volcanoes. Describing this, he says “We ask ‘Why does a volcano suddenly start to erupt in a big way?’ – can we see things in the sequences which help us to understand the processes causing the big changes in systems?” Originally from Liverpool, Rex did his undergraduate degree in geology at Leicester University, before completing a PhD in volcanic rocks at Southampton. After that, he said, he has stayed basically in the same area of research. He joined the National Oceanography Centre in the 1990s. He explains the history of the field to me: “People doing geology in the 1920s, their chemical analyses were pretty much as good as they are today. Nowadays we have more sensitive techniques, things that can tell us the precise isotopes in rocks. We’ve known some of the things that cause eruptions, or we think cause them, for some time – maybe 20 or 30 years, the fundamentals – but we’re finding out new things all the time.”
Day-to-day, in second semester, he will go into the labs, do some experiments, supervise students, and do some research. Thankfully, he says, the department helps lecturers do their research by compressing their teaching into one semester. Dr Taylor’s research involves a lot of nuclear analytical sciences; at the moment, his speciality is in measuring lead isotopes “in anything from rocks to donkey’s teeth to pottery”. He tells me about a current project trying to trace prehistoric pottery to particular areas and specific volcanoes by analysing the isotopes contained in the clay. I ask what his favourite thing is about his job, he replies “I’m a bit of a mass spectrometer geek – they’re great toys. They’ve developed so much in the last 15 years. These days, the electronics measuring what comes out at the other end is about the size of a coffee cup, rather than most of the room. Prepping samples still takes about a week though, and it’s quite expensive. We’re lucky here to have the best equipped geochemistry labs in the UK”
Next Tuesday, Rex will be speaking about examples of volcanoes that show us their deep processes. Nobody’s ever been inside a magma chamber, or taken samples of one. Occasionally eruptions will throw out rocks from deep inside the chamber, and Dr Taylor will be exploring what examples of these rocks from Tenerife, frozen in time, can tell us. He adds “They’re really beautiful things”
Dr Juerg Matter will be looking at other applications of volcanic rocks, beyond studying them to better know volcanic sequences and be able to predict eruptions. His research is in carbon capture and storage (CCS), specifically looking at storage. Currently, oil & gas industries focus on storing carbon in gas reservoirs, which Dr Matter explains is “fine, as long as you have a low permeability rock covering that reservoir, otherwise the CO2 will leak out”. Instead, his research focuses on a more permanent storage solution of converting CO2 back to limestone. Basalt, a volcanic rock, has the advantage of reacting with CO2 in a way that dissolves some minerals into the basalt, whereupon CO2 combines with calcium and magnesium to create limestone. Through weathering, this might happen naturally, over millions of years, but Juerg and his colleagues are “trying to engineer a way to speed up this natural process”.
Originally from Switzerland, after completing a PhD there, in water resources in arid areas, Juerg interviewed for a postdoctoral research position in CCS at Colombia University, NY, in 2001. He says that during the interview, when they explained what the research was in he asked “What is CCS?”, as it was barely heard of at the time. His job involves a lot of fieldwork – in Iceland, the US and Oman. In Iceland is a pilot injection project, injecting several hundred tonnes of CO2 into basalt rock in the deep subsurface to see how fast it is converted. He tells me “All the literature before us said, this reaction is really slow, it will take decades to hundreds of years. Within one year, all of our CO2 was converted.” The next step is to upscale – the project in the US, led by the University of Montana is looking to inject several tens of thousands of tonnes of CO2, and using new monitoring techniques to see what’s actually happening with the CO2 in the subsurface. In Oman is another pilot project looking at a different type of rock, mantle rocks, normally 40-60km below the surface, reacting them with CO2 at the surface.
Juerg will be discussing the big issues in climate change and what could be the solutions. One focus will be the mineralisation of CO2, but he will also ask what are the scales we are looking at? What kind of mix of solutions do we need? What is our energy consumption doing to the world, and what are just some of the solutions in terms of CCS? Talking to him, it is clear that he is passionate about his work, and about issues that cannot be ignored. He says what he loves about his job is that “It’s very diverse, it makes every day kind of exciting.” His research, he says, fulfils pure scientific curiosity, but also makes you feel you are doing something that could make a difference.
To hear Rex and Juerg talk with excitement about their work, head to http://pintofscience.co.uk/event/under-the-crust/ now to book tickets, and to the Dancing Man Brewery on Tuesday 19th May to order your pint.